When Are You Happiest?

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D.

We all know that negative moods are associated with poor physical health and psychological well-being (Nowack, K. (2008). Coaching for Stress: StressScan. Editor: Jonathan Passmore, Psychometrics in Coaching, Association for Coaching, UK, pp. 254-274). Happy individuals tend to have more responsive immune systems, less hormonal reactions to stress and are more likely to utilize health lifestyle practices that can make a difference in long term health and well-being (Nowack, K. M. (1989). Coping style, cognitive hardiness, & health status. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 12, 145-158).

The Link Between Positive Emotions and Health

In a study of 2,873 healthy British adults conducted by Dr. Andrew Steptoe, those who reported more positive emotions during the day had significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol that is typically associated with increased blood pressure, immune suppression and obesity (Steptoe, A. et al. (2007). Neuroendocrine and inflammatory factors associated with positive affect in healthy men and women: The Whitehall study II. American Journal of Epidemiology, 167, 96-102).

Among women, but not men in this study, positive emotions were significantly lower as well as important cardiovascular inflammation markers including C-reactive protein and interleukin-6.

Gathering key new information and using modern research methods to study 1,500 Californians across eight decades, health scientists Dr. Howard S. Friedman and Dr. Leslie R. Martin from UC Riverside found that those with the most optimism and cheerfulness die younger than their less positive counterparts. It was the conscientious people—careful, sometimes even neurotic, but not catastrophizing—who lived longer.

Part of the explanation lies in studying the health behaviors of the study subject — the cheerful, happy-go-lucky kids tended to take more risks with their health across the years (Friedman, H. & Martin, L. (2011). The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study. Hudson Street Press). It turns out that overly-optimistic people tend to put themselves in harm’s way — they just don’t see risks as clearly as people who are prone to some level of caution/pessimism. So, it seems that it is important to be happy but maybe not too happy if you want to live longer.

These findings support the idea that happiness is protective.

When Are You Most Happiest?

A pair of researchers from Cornell University are the latest to mine social networks looking for trends. Scott Golder and Michael Macy analyzed 509 million Twitter messages posted over a period of two years by 2.4 million users across 84 different countries. From this data, they have gleaned that people have the same daily cycle of moods, regardless of their culture or language.

The results showed people tend to be happier in the morning and during weekends. The Twitter messages revealed that they wake up happy and slowly grow more dissatisfied as the day goes on. This behavior happens on both weekdays and weekends (the weekend tweets usually start approximately two hours later most likely because people are sleeping in.

Even in countries where the weekend is not Saturday and Sunday (e.g., United Arab Emirates), these patterns were still clear.

Out of that work came a website, www.timeu.se, that allows people to see how often a particular word is used at different times of the day and week.

This research suggests that happiness is an ultradian rhythm (shorter than 24 hours) much like body temperature, concentration, eye blinks) which is maximized in the morning hours….No word yet if you miss out all together if you are a “night owl”….Be well….


Vacations: The Good and Bad News

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D.

I just came back from a wonderful vacation to visit my best friend and colleague Bill Bradley who has been doing some wonderful volunter work for some very poor schools in Zihuatanejo, Mexico (he has written an inspiring new book and blog about the last few years of his efforts to sponsor some special students and his work).

It got me wondering about the need for vacations and the impact they might have to restore our physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual energy.

How Long Does the Effect of Vacations Really Last?

There is quite a bit of research that suggests that holidays and vacations are healthy. Newer research is focusing on the fade-out of these effects.

In a recent study by Jana Kuhnel and Sabine Sonnetag, one hundred and thirty-one participants completed questionnaires one time before and three times after vacationing.

Results indicated that teachers’ work engagement significantly increased and particpant’s job burnout significantly decreased immediately returning after vacation.

However, these beneficial effects faded out within one month (Kuhnel, J. et al. (2010). How long do you benefit from vacation? A closer look at the fade-out of vacation effects. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 32, 125-143). Maybe I should take at least one vacation every month.

Can Vacations be Good for Your Health or Harmful?

Researcher Karen Matthews from the University of Pittsburgh studied 12,338 men for nine years as part of a large coronary heart disease study called MRFIT (Gump, B. & Matthews, K. (2000). Are vacations good for your health? The 9-year mortality experience after the multiple risk factor intervention trial. Psychosomatic Medicine, 62, 608-612). She found that annual vacations by middle-aged men at high risk for coronary heart disease was associated with a significant reduction in all-cause mortality and more specifically death due to heart disease. Her study provides some interesting research in support of the argument that vacations might actually be good for your health.

The United States is definitely the land of “relaxation deficit disorder” and even when we need a vacation or should take time off during a holiday we are often reluctant to do so. Even worse is when we do, we might even get sick because of it.

According to www.monster.com, 61% of workers in the United States take less than 15 days of vacation per year. Comparison studies suggest we do work 100 hours more than professional workers in Europe. The average work week in the United States is a bit more than 44 hours and even more if you are in a professional position or own your own business.

A survey of 2,082 workers by Hudson (The Hudson Employment Index) suggested that more than half of the respondents said they do not use all of their vacation time and 30% indicated that they use less than half of their allotted personal time. Interestingly, 30% also reported feeling more comfortable taking sick time rather than vacation.

So, why do some of us get sick in the heat of the battle, others after the battle and some are just plain resilient in the face of work and life stress (Nowack, K. (2007). Who is the Resilient Talent, and How Do You Develop It? Talent Management, 3 (6) p. 12.)?

It appears that some of us who just unwind and take a holiday might actually be at risk for getting sick! Yep, you are on that plane just ready to take a long deserved vacation and all of a sudden you begin to feel lousy. You think, “No, not now — I don’t need to get sick during my vacation!”

Typically, you were also the same students in college who head home after finals week and after creating a huge sleep deficit (OK, partying, cutting back on exercise and eating lousy will definitely add to that) and feeling some final exam pressure (surely at least once class got you fired up) you head home for that long awaited break only to basically find yourself in bed the entire time.

Just when I thought holiday breaks and vacations were advised, recommended and a stress reliever I had a chance to chat with a colleague and friend of mine who is on faculty at the UCLA School of Medicine — Marc Schoen, Ph.D. who has been studying this exact mind-body connection in his book,”When Relaxation is Hazardous to Your Health.”

When Vacations Can Be Bad for Your Health

Indeed, relaxation can actually be a contributor too getting sick–particularly if you unwind to fast and move from a chronically excited “stress state” to a sudden “relaxed” state like going away on a vacation. There is even a name for this — the “Let Down Effect” coined by Dr. Schoen.

When you’re straining and struggling under the burden of work or family pressures, your body releases a number of stress hormones which mobilize your immune system against illness. But when the stressful period ends, your immune system “pulls back its troops” and the body becomes less vigilant in weeding out internal and external invaders. At the same time, says Schoen, a reservoir of body chemicals called prostaglandins, left over from the stress response, tends to produce inflammation, and can trigger problems like arthritic pain, migraines and exacerbate other stress related conditions.

Here are some options recommended by Schoen to minimize the Let Down Effect and stay healthy before and after vacations:

  1. Schoen recommends techniques that activate the immune system a little, and thus keep it from slowing down too rapidly after a period of stress. Try short bursts of exercise — even just five minutes in length — which can trigger a positive immune-system response. “Walk up and down the stairs in your office building,” says Schoen. “Or after a stressful day at work, instead of coming home and vegging-out in front of the TV, take a brisk walk for a few minutes.”
  2. Try some mental problem solving, like crossword puzzles, under time constraints. “Several studies show that doing math computations at a rapid pace actually increases immune-system activity,” says Schoen.
  3. Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, which can give your mind and body a rest stop from the day’s anxieties. Consciously make yourself breathe slower, inhaling deeply and exhaling naturally. Become aware of the gentle rising and falling of your abdomen. This deep breathing can lower your heart rate, slow your brain waves, and even reduce your blood pressure. Paying attention to your breathing is actually a simple and calming form of meditation.

The idea is to move more slowly from your current fast paced and chronically stressed state to a more gradual relaxation state. It’s the “unwinding before you unwind” condition. The risk of shifting to quickly is the risk of spending your vacation or holiday fighting something you’d rather avoid having to deal with in the first place.

So, if you head off for a holiday break and begin to feel less than 100 percent, you might want to follow the advice of Dr. Schoen…..Be well….